Frank Gupton (right) founded the Medicines for All Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University and lent his name to a new initiative designed to lead rural students to jobs in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. Photo courtesy of the Commonwealth Alliance for Rural Colleges.

A new academic collaboration is intended to help rural Virginia students gain a foothold in the state’s pharmaceutical manufacturing sector, which has seen a recent growth surge and is poised for further expansion thanks to more than $50 million in new federal funding.

The Gupton Initiative will create a pathway for students at four private liberal arts schools – Averett University, Bluefield University, Eastern Mennonite University and Ferrum College – to also study at Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Engineering and earn dual bachelor’s degrees. They will also have the option to pursue post-graduate programs.

“Employment demand for talent in the pharmaceutical cluster in central Virginia is strong, and graduates of our program will become leaders in streamlining advanced manufacturing processes that are essential to the pharmaceutical and chemical industry,” Frank Gupton, a professor and founder of the Medicines for All Institute at VCU, said in a news release announcing the initiative. 

The initiative also could provide a recruiting boost for the schools, said Carthan Currin, president of the Commonwealth Alliance for Rural Colleges, which worked with VCU to launch the program. None of the four private schools offers a chemical engineering major, he said; this could help them attract students who want to pursue jobs in pharmaceuticals.

The initiative received a $100,000 grant from GO Virginia, a statewide economic development initiative.

The Gupton Initiative is starting small, probably with two students from each of the four schools. Students will study at their home school for three years, then transfer to VCU for another two years, Currin said. VCU and the alliance schools will be working out tuition details.

The goal, he said, is to create a long-term pipeline between rural schools and Virginia’s growing drug manufacturing sector, which right now is largely centered around Petersburg and Richmond. The former has seen several significant pharmaceutical industry announcements over the last 18 months, including a pledge by Civica RX to build a $125 million factory and a plan by AMPAC Fine Chemicals to expand its existing facility.

Richmond, meanwhile, hosts Gupton’s Medicines for All Institute, which was created in 2017 to find cheaper ways to produce drugs; its work has included developing lower-cost ways of manufacturing AIDS and HIV medications and an antiviral drug used to treat COVID-19. Three years later, also in Richmond, Gupton co-founded Phlow Corp., which in the early months of the pandemic won several large federal contracts to bolster the nation’s supply of critical drugs.

That base helped the region land a piece of the billion-dollar Build Back Better Regional Challenge last month. Almost $53 million in federal funding will be used to further expand the pharmaceutical cluster; planned initiatives include building out lab space and manufacturing facilities, and developing workforce training programs.

But Currin believes that there’s potential for the state’s drug cluster to expand beyond the Petersburg-Richmond corridor, and he thinks that rural-urban collaborations like the Gupton Initiative could help drive that growth. He pointed out that Merck already has a manufacturing facility near Harrisonburg, home of Eastern Mennonite University.

“Virginia’s getting a reputation for having a pharma cluster, which we’ve been wanting for a long time,” he said. “But who’s to say that some of these opportunities down the road that we don’t even know about at this juncture couldn’t land in Danville or Bristol or Harrisonburg?” 

Megan Schnabel

Megan Schnabel is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org.